Maybe she just has to sing, for the sake of the song
And who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong.
—Townes Van Zandt, “For the Sake of the Song”
I was singing my heart out.
The words I’d set to music were sure to capture her attention, so I let them fly.
People said that we were crazy
And someday we would die
But I never let it faze me
Because they didn’t know that I…
Was roped up with the girl who saved my life.
I was in a trance.
Maybe this is it, I thought, the song that changes everything. The one I’d been searching for the past ten years.
I glanced up from the guitar’s fretboard to catch her reaction.
Yep, still listening. And she’s smiling. I’ve got this. She loves this one for sure.
I quieted down, transitioning into the thought-provoking last verse, hanging on every word for extra emphasis.
These days, I’m still hearing the same refrain
Repeating all the worries of the past
But we’ve stayed tied together like a daisy chain
Even though they said it wouldn’t last
The last words had hardly left my mouth before she burst into laughter.
Wait, what’s happening? Why is she laughing?
“Daisy chain?” she crowed. “Is it the G-string kind?”
By this point, I’d given up and laid my guitar across my lap while my wife continued to chuckle.
Fair enough, I thought. Maybe writing songs about climbing wasn’t going to work. I had written about all the usual suspects—love, home, and loss—but climbing still eluded me.
by Chris Parker (this piece is printed in Volume 11, “Choss, Solos, and Reflection” Get your copy, or subscribe HERE) Banner photo: Chris Parker Collection
Maybe that’s because I was born in the Mississippi Delta, a place so flat you could stand on a milk crate and see six miles farther. I’d grown up with music, sure. But climbing? That was as incomprehensible as comparing Stevie Ray to Jimi.
Music was all I really knew. By the time I was sixteen, I was gigging around the Delta, and my life was all planned out. I would cut a few records, ramble across the country, playing clubs, and die at a young age from an overdose probably. It was simple. All I wanted to do was make music, write songs, and party…really fucking hard.
You could say the Delta was a breeding ground for hell-raisers. Somewhere deep down in that near-inhospitable farmland lies the genesis of the blues, and if you’ve ever listened to the lyrics of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, or Son House, you’ll hear the reason why. If there’s nothing but unbearable heat and hard work lying on a sun-blurred horizon, any soul will look for an escape. And in the case of many sharecroppers-turned-bluesmen, religion—which also has deep roots in the South—doesn’t quite cut it. They found their cure in corn whiskey.
Keep in mind there was nothing else to do but party…at least that was my favorite excuse for why I chose to live like a bluesman at a young age. There were no mountains and no “outdoors” unless you wanted to get eaten alive by the unfathomably large mosquitoes that haunt the Delta. What we did was drink, smoke, and get into trouble. That was the culture. You may have heard it referred to as the blues.
Weekend nights consisted of driving an intricate system of gravel farm roads outside the city limits—we called ’em roads “turn rows”—while drinking Budweiser and chiefing Marlboros. DUIs were almost rights of passage, and the occasional wrecked car was a standard affair. I once totaled a friend’s Honda and my old Volvo in just under two hours on one wild Friday night. I was lucky enough to live, much less escape getting picked up by the police, who never suspected anything was amiss—nor did they notice the beer bottle hidden in my sock—when I arrived at the station after the first wreck. They only found my twisted and mangled sedan of the night eerily parked in the driveway leading to a farm’s feed bins. I’d rolled my car—the second wreck of the night—through the ditch lining the side of the country road. Like some stunt in a Hollywood film, that Volvo popped out of the ditch just in time to land on all four wheels in the driveway. My two friends and I opened the doors, brushed the glass out of our hair, hid the beer, and got the hell outta there before we got caught.
Gig nights, however, involved playing music in a bar till midnight, and in those days, the Mississippi drinking establishments seamlessly combined everything I needed to have a good time. You could smoke inside, which gave me the opportunity to plug a cigarette into the headstock of my guitar like Jimi, and you could drink whiskey, of course. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t twenty-one. When you grow up in a small town and know pretty much every damn person in the place, you can easily find yourself with a beer in hand to chase the shot you just swallowed. Plus, I was the entertainment. That meant drinks were on the house.
Maybe I had demons. Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that I liked to get really fucked up. Perhaps, just like those sharecroppers, I too felt a need to escape. I remember struggling with a feeling of incredible hopelessness and thinking I’d never get any further from a fate sealed in a small Mississippi town. The world outside seemed to pass me by. However, above all, getting drunk and high while raising hell was just plain fun, and I was pretty good at it.
By the time I hit twenty-one, however, I was worn out. I couldn’t remember a stretch of more than two days where I hadn’t spent all my gig money on booze and drugs. I wasn’t even writing songs anymore. So I decided to bail. I played four gigs in five days, tossed the cash in a lockbox, loaded guitars and amps into my Honda Accord, and hit the road.
Where was I heading? West.
Perhaps it was the interview I’d read with famous Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt. He mentioned he’d escape the cities of Austin or Nashville and camp out in the woods of Crested Butte. “Catch a horse and gamble with the miners” is how he put it.
Or maybe it was the fact that my best friend had left Mississippi for good and was currently living in the sleepy mountain town of Ouray, Colorado. “C’mon out,” he’d said. “Stay as long as you need.”
Turns out I needed about a decade. My habits didn’t die easy. The first few years living in the mountains proved to be little more than a change of scenery.
Ouray, for me, was an easy town to escape to. Hidden beneath the rugged San Juan Mountains, the old mining town still had an outlaw vibe—a place where fugitives and troublemakers could hang out and not be bothered. Whatever you’d done before didn’t matter there. Ouray was a clean slate.
During my first winter—I’d arrived on January 10, exactly a month after turning 21—I worked the evenings as a busboy at the Italian place on Main Street. Coincidentally, I’d found that the majority of the kitchen workers at the joint were like-minded souls who were also running away from something. Some were from New Orleans—a result of Hurricane Katrina—while others seemed to have been bouncing around so long they weren’t from anywhere anymore. Regardless, these were my new people, and you could say we were thick as thieves. We’d work hard till closing time, and once again, drinks were on the house.
That first winter, I still played guitar but only for fun. It was as relieving as it was concerning to me. I knew I needed to write songs. I knew there were new chords, new scales, and new voices to find. But it was so easy to let it all go. Plus, there was always something new to discover…like the girl whom I’d met the night before. The one who I’d played Townes’s “Lungs” for in hopes to be invited back to her place.
Though the winter was long, the spring and summer eventually crept up, and the warm seasons brought with it a host of new activities. The higher the snowline moved, the farther we were able to explore into the mountains, until finally I was standing beneath the sheer walls of rock hanging above the talus field on the north end of town.
Annie Whitehouse—a renowned mountaineer and climber who happened to also date the chef from work—was standing up ahead, eyeing the same rock. She reached in her climbing pack and pulled out a haggard, yellowed garment and tossed it my direction.
“This was Derek’s,” she said. “Now it’s yours.”
I was harnessed up for my first lead when I caught the flying tank top. I’d probably been climbing two weeks, and with Annie at the helm as our quasi mentor, our small Mississippi crew had been picking our way through the rock climbs on the outskirts of town.
Climbing was a rad new way of getting high. Sure, I’d still howl at the moon till the early morning hours occasionally, but those nocturnal escapades really started getting in the way of the next day’s mission to explore more Colorado stone.
And it wasn’t just the act of climbing that began to inspire me. It was the history, the culture, and the characters who had pioneered the sport. Annie was a direct line into a world filled with legendary badasses, like her former boyfriend Derek Hersey. She’d told us stories about Derek, a longhaired Brit who specialized in free soloing. Derek had died “a free soloists death,” she’d said, and I couldn’t help but draw a connection to the fanatical climber’s lifestyle and that of a troubadour like Townes, who seemed to only live for the sake of the song.
The day I marched up to The Alcove to lead my first rock climb, I think Annie had sensed that connection. When I unfolded the tattered rag she’d tossed, I saw the silhouette of a cowboy with a Fender Stratocaster slung on his shoulder. The faded print on the tank top read: Stevie Ray Vaughan Couldn’t Stand The Weather Tour, 1985.
The climber’s life slowly replaced the troubles of my past. I spent two years in Ouray, climbing rocks in the spring, summer, and fall and eventually saved enough money for ice-climbing gear so I could experience the town’s famed Ice Park in the winter. As for songs and music? They could wait. Sure, I felt guilty for leaving music on the back burner, but I’d decided to follow a new path.
After two years in Ouray, I decided to move down to Durango and dirtbag my way through college so I could learn to write prose.
There’s something magical about climbing that entices those who fancy themselves as writers. Just the sight of Chamonix’s mountains sent the famed Percy B. Shelley into a fit of metaphoric verse, resulting in the classic poem “Mont Blanc.”
Power dwells apart in its tranquility
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind.…
And there’s no shortage of climbing-inspired literature, both young and old, that continues to be a cornerstone for rebellious souls looking for adventure.
Needless to say, I fell hard for the words and stories surrounding the radical climbing culture. Writing about climbing was a way to explore the characters that intrigued me. In the beginning, I wasn’t really interested in the introspective form. That’s probably a result of having grown up in Mississippi and feeling quite inexperienced in all things involving mountains. Instead, I wanted to tell stories about underground crushers who inspired me. Those tales about Derek that Annie had told us, for example, were what converted me into a climber. Those are the stories I looked for.
It wasn’t hard to find climbers to write about while living in Durango. The town has a reputation for hosting a plethora of unsung heroes. “The land Gill forgot,” they say, referring to the wealth of world-class stone that famous pioneers like John Gill never bothered to explore. Durango was indeed the land of the undercover crusher.
My first subject was the kid everyone talked about at the college-campus climbing gym. “Mason flashed it,” I’d overhear. “Oh, yeah, Mason totally onsighted that.” I pried a little to discover that a Fort Lewis College dropout named Mason Earle was quietly climbing the nearby desert’s hardest cracks, often first try.
I pitched Rock and Ice magazine the story, and they were game. All I had to do was write it up. Easy, right?
“Cut and dried,” the associate editor wrote after my first draft. I’d submitted the piece thinking it was in the bag, and now a professional editor basically said it was poorly written. Damn. I was heartbroken.
The usual feelings of doubt crept in. What the fuck was I doing with my life? I’d given up on music—something I was good at—to focus on writing, and now I sucked.
I let that piece sit for half a year before I entered the ring for round two. However, I reread interviews in R&I, studied the style, and reformed the piece. Hitting send on my email with a second draft attached gave me butterflies. But it was worth it. This time the magazine bought the story after a few rounds of edits, and three months before graduation, I was officially a published climbing writer.
When I met with my college advisor to discuss career opportunities, the answer was obvious: I was going to be a climbing writer.
What the fuck is a climbing writer?
I could hear my bewildered friends from Mississippi struggle to find meaning in my proclaimed vocation. Climbing was weird enough. But I was moving to another mountain town in Colorado called Carbondale to work at Rock and Ice magazine?
Hell yes, I was.
My first year at Rock and Ice was dreamy. Climbing. Writing. Editing. Rifle on the weekends. Redstone boulders on weeknights.
Carbondale, though smaller than Durango, had a thriving tribe of climbers, and coincidentally, the music scene was also happening. There were several local bands, and after a year of laying low and only playing guitar on my couch after work, I started getting the odd invite to jam.
It was Chris Kalous—the voice of The Enormocast—who first asked if I wanted to play.
He enticed me to come to his cabin in the Crystal River Valley south of town to play a little and hang out.
“Pick up some yellow beer on your way over,” he said.
This occasional jam session continued, until eventually Kalous and I had formed a full-fledged band—adding our flavor of tunes to the growing Carbondale scene.
The problem was I’d unintentionally, perhaps subconsciously, awakened the beast.
Music, that old, all-encompassing till-death-do-us-part friend I’d had? Yeah, she was back.
I’m not sure what happened, but one evening I wrote a song. The first song, I’ll add, in ten long years. Then, I wrote another one. And another one. I’ll admit, at one point I had a notepad sitting on my desk at R&I headquarters. It was there that I’d spend several minutes of every hour reworking verses, perfecting rhymes, and searching, always searching, for the perfect turn of phrase.
Music. It was again running (or ruining, depending how you see it) my life. Pretty soon I had a grip of songs and new plans. Climbing? Fuck it. Who cared about climbing? I was heading to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the hit capital of the world, to make a record and start a new career.
The truth is I never wanted anything in life other than to be a musician. No matter how hard I repressed it, followed other paths, or pursued anything else, including climbing, music was always there, waiting to take over. In a way, I even considered that climbing had perhaps been just a side road, albeit an odd one, I admit, to where I belonged all along. And that’s onstage with a guitar.
I made it to the Shoals and cut an album of my new songs in two days, playing live in the studio with some of the boys you may have heard called the Swampers. I moved up to Seattle, played a few shows…and then things got tough.
Maybe it was the daunting juggernaut that is the music industry. Or the fact that I’d left all my friends, my job, and the mountains I’d fallen in love with for such uncertainty, but I was in a funk that would put James Brown to shame.
Seattle was where I thought I needed to be. After all, Colorado wasn’t for musicians. Playing the local pubs in Carbondale wasn’t going to further my music career. These days, you have to be in the scene, right? What I actually discovered in Seattle was loneliness and a profound lack of purpose. No job. No gigs. Hell, I didn’t even have a band anymore. I’m not exactly sure what I expected to find in Seattle, but a music career (or any meaningful career, for that matter) didn’t pan out.
I ran back to the one thing I knew I could escape to: climbing.
This time, however, I made a conscious decision to try to keep music around. My biggest mistakes have always involved giving up. Giving up on music to be a climber caused years of regret. And giving up on climbing—which had become an integral part of who I was as an adult—with hopes of only being a musician again threw me further off course.
There had to be a way to have both.
Look at Jack Johnson, I’d tell myself while pondering this very question. That perennially tanned surfer-boy extraordinaire has a blossoming music career. And didn’t Miles Davis box? I mean, sure he was too scared of ruining his embouchure to actually get in the ring with an opponent…but you get my point.
Climbing. Music. Simple enough, right? I just needed to pen some new songs that truly captured how it feels to move over stone or see a new cliff for the first time. Or better yet, how roping up with a loved one pulls you closer together, and you remain…tied together like a daisy chain.
Ok, I’ll admit, when I first wrote that lyric, I chuckled too. But these days, I’m still hearing the same refrain, every time I pull out my guitar.
“Play my favorite one, babe. The daisy chain song.”
“You know, the one you call ‘Climbers.’”
Chris Parker is a writer, climber, and musician living with his wife and coydog in Salt Lake City. His new EP Cliff Notes—featuring songs inspired by climbing—is available now. Visit ChristopherParkerMusic.com to learn more.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.